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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

How Can Design Improve Affordable Housing on Tribal Lands?

In the US, 22 percent of households in tribal areas have severely inadequate housing, are overcrowded, or both. Many deficient units are in projects funded, designed, and/or run by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Furthermore, these projects often implement standardized designs that do not support social and cultural norms and practices related to the home. In “Participatory Models of Housing: Promising Design Practices for Affordable Housing on Tribal Lands,” a new paper co-published by the Center and NeighborWorks® America, I explore several promising, nascent efforts to develop housing that is affordable, higher-quality, and culturally sensitive. The paper is based on research I conducted as a Gramlich Fellow.

In my research, I examined data about current housing conditions on tribal lands and reviewed literature on the history of housing policies and design in Native areas. I also interviewed Native and non-Native practitioners including architects, builders, financial experts, and leaders of housing financing and construction organizations and agencies. Finally, I visited three efforts to develop design approaches that better respond to needs on tribal lands: the Pueblo of Jemez Housing Authority (POJHA) in New Mexico, the Native Partnership for Housing (NPH) in New Mexico, and the MiCASiTA project, a collaboration between multiple organizations in the Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Indigenous knowledge and practice can serve as the basis for design both as a process (determining the layout, structure, and materiality of the house) and as a material manifestation (the house itself). The three initiatives show how practitioners leverage design in their unique contexts to improve housing conditions on tribal lands. The POJHA demonstrates how designs that both incorporate traditional building materials (in this case adobe) and respond to the cultural uses of space can both foster participation and support identity building in the Pueblo. As Estevan Sando, operations manager at the POJHA and a traditional dancer for the Pueblo, told me, “If I dance, I expect there to be at least 10 people at my house at the end of the day. So, we have to have a space where we can cater to all of those people. We eat a lot here, and it is a lot about sharing here, so we can’t have a round table; we have to have a long one for a lot of people.”

NPH and its current project, Karigan Estates, a 51-home subdivision located on the Navajo Nation in the northeast region of Arizona, shows how resident choice, quality design, and durable construction can not only provide long-lasting housing centered on resident need, but shift individual and community imaginaries around the potentials of housing. Currently, housing stock on the Navajo Nation is largely single-family homes, manufactured homes, and hogan structures, all of which have in some way become associated with the substandard infrastructure and high levels of poverty in the Nation (where 57.4 percent of individuals make less than $10,000 a year). At the request of residents, Karigan Estates introduces an aesthetic to the Nation that is typical of subdivisions in cities like Phoenix or Albuquerque. Providing a new type of housing allows members of the Nation to understand alternative models of housing, and demonstrates that design for Native communities does not necessarily need to incorporate traditional structures, materials, and methods of building. As one NPH employee told me: “If you can instill pride, you are going to bring members of the community back… Right now, instead of a magnet to attract, you have a visual that repels people.”

Finally, the MiCASiTA initiative, located in Texas but planned to expand into Native communities throughout the country, shows how combining a standardized construction and delivery process of housing while allowing for flexibility in the design based on climate and resident choice can improve access to quality housing. The effort is notable because it is based on the incremental building techniques used within the colonias—low-income communities along the US-Mexico border where, often for financial reasons, families build their homes in stages. As this building process is often undertaken without professional assistance, many self-built structures can be unhealthy or even unsafe. As Lisa Neergard, associate director of planning at one of the organizations involved in the project explained, the MiCASiTA design takes the process of incremental building and “formalizes it so that it no longer has the housing health risks that are associated with how people are building on or constructing their own homes—and also attach it to a more secure and traditional lending model.”

In doing this work, practitioners and organizations leading housing projects in collaboration with tribal, state, and federal governments must recognize that Native design and participation can look and feel differently, depending on the context. However, as the three case studies demonstrate, participatory processes—coupled with improved funding regulations and a commitment to higher building standards—have the potential to provide healthier, safer, and more culturally appropriate housing while allowing families to build generational wealth and have pride in their homes and communities.